School Finance

With a $100,000 Gates grant, IPS moves to strengthen district, charter school collaboration

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Public Schools received a $100,000 grant to promote partnership with charter schools.

When staff from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came to Indianapolis in 2011, they were hoping to fund and support partnerships between district and charter schools. But local officials showed so little interest in collaborating, that the idea was scrapped.

That’s the story told in new grant proposal submitted to the Gates Foundation by the Indianapolis Public Schools last December.

Just five years on, the district has gone through a complete overhaul. Two election cycles brought in a wave of board members, nearly all of whom are eager to see greater collaboration with charter schools.

In 2013, the board hired Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has been an advocate for partnerships with charter schools, leasing district buildings to charter schools and supporting legislation to allow the district to hand management of failing schools over to outside organizations, such as charter schools.

With such strong support for district-charter partnerships from IPS leaders, it’s not surprising that when the district applied for a grant from the Gates Foundation in December, it was approved. The foundation awarded IPS a $100,000 grant to help support the district innovation office and fund a new innovation manager position. The board voted to accept the grant at a meeting today.

“I’m very excited,” said Board President Mary Ann Sullivan. “We have some great assets within the district that hopefully we can make available to maybe some schools that previously had not been able to access those things.”

Several Indianapolis charter schools, all current or potential innovation partners, signed on to a district-charter compact, an IPS official said. They include Enlace Academy, KIPP College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. In development are three new partner schools including Westside Community Middle School, Kindezi Academy and Global Preparatory Academy.

Board member Gayle Cosby voted against accepting the grant. The Gates Foundation typically awards grants to districts that are moving toward privatization, she said.

“To me it signaled the beginning of an era of intensified privatization of our district,” she said. “My hope is that IPS continues to be in the business of educating children, not just supporting charter schools that are educating children.”

The funding will help IPS pursue plans to grant school leaders more freedom and partner with outside organizations to run some schools. It will also take the district one step closer to a potential partnership with charter schools encompassing unified enrollment and a shared system to give families looking for schools information on school quality that would include measures such as parent perceptions of schools and how well they serve high-needs students.

The push for a unified enrollment system is being led by The Mind Trust fellow Caitlin Hannon, a former school board member who resigned in August to develop the new enrollment process. It would provide one stop for families applying for spots in the city’s charter and IPS schools.

“We have a system of choice, and we have a lot of choices in Indianapolis,” Hannon said. “But they’re really, really confusing for all families, let alone the families that need them the most.”

(Read more: Hannon’s goal: Help parents make choices and give schools useful data.)

The district has not committed to joining Enroll Indy, Hannon’s enrollment system, but Ferebee has been part of the planning process.

“They’ve been fruitful conversations, but there still remains a lot to be determined in terms of details and logistics,” Ferebee said.

IPS also is working with Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office on a separate project to try to create a system to give parents detailed information on school quality that goes beyond the A-F grades awarded by the state, Ferebee said.

“The information that parents need to make informed decisions about school, information they need to hold us accountable, is not readily available,” Ferebee said. “We need to be giving them more information.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.